Edward Crutchfield, who helped Charlotte grow as banking hub, dies at 82

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Edward Crutchfield, who headed a modest North Carolina bank in 1985 when the Supreme Court expanded interstate banking, and who then began a merger-making blitz that grew his First Union into a major player and helped put Charlotte on the map as a regional financial hub, died Jan. 2 at 82.

The death, at his home in Vero Beach, Fla., was announced by his family. He had health problems related to dementia.

The pace and ambitions of Mr. Crutchfield’s acquisitions gave him the nickname Fast Eddie and thrust him into the ranks of the nation’s most-watched banking executives. First Union took over Atlantic Bancorporation, based in Jacksonville, Fla., in June 1985, days after the Supreme Court ruled that states could band together in regional compacts to permit interstate banking without having to open their doors to banks from elsewhere.

After that, hardly a month went by without Mr. Crutchfield setting his sights on another potential empire-building target across the Southeast and beyond.

When he stepped down in 2000 — facing medical issues from cancer — Mr. Crutchfield had directed mergers at dozens of financial institutions and built the nation’s sixth-largest bank by assets at more than $250 billion.

“That’s the main thing it took, was nerve,” he told the PBS news show “Frontline” in 2004. “I don’t know. I mean, again, it took vision. You had to be able to think outside the box a bit.”

In 1965, Mr. Crutchfield headed back to North Carolina with an MBA from the Wharton School and an array of job offers. He took the lowest-paying opportunity on the table, a credit and bond analyst position at Charlotte’s First Union. At the time, the bank had just crossed $100 million in assets. It was a cornerstone of North Carolina banking, but barely a blip on the national scene — ranked at 89th largest.

Mr. Crutchfield said he chose First Union because he believed he could climb faster at a smaller bank. He established himself as an innovator with a hands-on style.

He plugged holes in the bank’s clunky credit card operations in 1968 with a 24-hour processing and help center. He slept on cot at the office while the new system was taking shape. “I felt I had to be there to welcome the midnight shift and the 8 o’clock shift,” he told the New York Times.

In 1972, he became the bank’s president. He was 32 and portrayed himself as a vanguard of the new generation of banking, more growth oriented and not afraid to embrace the technology that was already showing hints of changing banking such as ATMs and electronic payment systems. The Charlotte News dubbed him the “young lion.”

His territory was limited. North Carolina was among the national leaders in extensive local banking networks, with a long tradition of allowing financial institutions to grow through branches. But the state border was as far as most banks could go. Banking rules raised major obstacles to interstate banking.

That changed with the Supreme Court’s decision in 1985, the first of a series of legal and judicial moves to open the nation’s banking landscape. The court in 1985 dealt a blow to big banks seeking a coast-to-coast playing field. Yet for Mr. Crutchfield, the high court had given just what he had hoped. He could grow in the region with the larger New York and Chicago banks held a bay. The era of banking consolidation was underway.

“I had been flying all over everywhere trying to cultivate banks from Maryland to Florida and west to Tennessee, believing that it was going to happen,” Mr. Crutchfield told a University of North Carolina School of Law interviewer for a 2007 analysis on regional banking.

He went straight into the merger deal with the Jacksonville bank, the first step in building a colossus that helped elevate Charlotte into the region’s center for financial services and banking. “My notion is that we have been like fish who have been restricted to a little creek and only allowed to grow to a certain size,” Mr. Crutchfield said of the banking rules before the Supreme Court decision.

Mr. Crutchfield liked to cultivate an image as a homespun man of the South who spent his free time fishing and sealed deals with a handshake. There was also the side of him that hated to lose. Recounting how he negotiated with Signet Banking Corp. president Malcolm McDonald to sell to First Union in 1997 for $3.25 billion, Mr. Crutchfield joked: “I just kept stacking billion-dollar bills on the table until Mac said yes.”

There were setbacks as Mr. Crutchfield looked for new markets. The 1998 acquisition of the venerable CoreStates Financial, which traced its roots back more than 200 years in Philadelphia, led to widespread problems in integrating the two computer systems.

The same year, First Union paid $2.1 billion for the Money Store, which specialized in home-equity loans and was known for commercials featuring baseball greats Phil Rizzuto and Jim Palmer. In 2000, the Money Store was closed with deep losses.

Edward Elliott Crutchfield was born on July 14, 1941, in Dearborn, Mich., and raised in Albemarle, N.C., about 40 miles east of Charlotte. His father worked for the FBI and later was a lawyer and county judge. His mother was a high school teacher.

He attended Davidson College in North Carolina on a football scholarship, graduating in 1963. He earned a master of business administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1965.

His marriage to Nancy Robson ended in divorce. In 1996, he married Barbara Massa. Other survivors include a son and daughter from his first marriage; a stepdaughter, and five grandchildren.

In 2001, a year after Mr. Crutchfield retired, First Union was no longer the flagship name of the goliath he built. First Union won a bidding war with Atlanta-based SunTrust to merge with Wachovia, a Winston-Salem, N.C.-based bank with a strong presence in the Southeast.

A stipulation of the deal was that the Wachovia name survived in the new network that stretched from New England to Florida and other states. The switch included changing sports venues such as the First Union Spectrum in Philadelphia to the Wachovia Spectrum. Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia in 2008 during the global financial crisis.

Even as Mr. Crutchfield insisted that he loved having a career far from New York, he often measured First Bank’s stature — and, by extension, his success — in terms of a rivalry with the nation’s biggest financial center.

“You simply have to reinvent yourself or change yourself,” he said, “so that you have the ability to compete with that New York crowd who had … been eating our lunch.”

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